Australia: Dark day for democracy as military whistleblower lawyer David McBride imprisoned

Civil society groups have expressed grave concern and alarm after military whistleblower David McBride was sentenced to almost six years’ imprisonment in the ACT Supreme Court on Tuesday. 

McBride leaked documents to the ABC that formed the basis for the broadcaster’s landmark Afghan Files reporting, which showed credible evidence of war crimes committed by Australian forces in Afghanistan. The reporting was subsequently confirmed by the Brereton Inquiry.

McBride had argued he was immune from prosecution under federal whistleblowing law, but withdrew that defence in 2022. He then argued that the offences he was charged under contained a public interest element; after that was rejected by the trial judge, he pleaded guilty in November 2023.

On Tuesday, McBride was given a sentence of five years and eight months, with a non-parole period of two years and three months.

McBride is the first whistleblower to be imprisoned in recent memory in Australia. Witness K, who exposed Australia’s spying against Timor-Leste, was given a suspended sentence; the prosecution of his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, was dropped by the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus KC, after the Albanese Government took office. Tax office whistleblower Richard Boyle will face trial in September.

Whistleblowers play a vital democratic role by exposing government wrongdoing and corporate misdeeds. The civil society groups expressed concern that future whistleblowers will stay silent if they are worried about being prosecuted, and wrongdoing will stay hidden as a result.

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Australia: Dark day for democracy as military whistleblower lawyer David McBride imprisoned